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How would you live last days on Earth?

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WHAT would you do if the world only had six months to live?

American writer Ben H. Winters, best known for his parodies (Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina) asks us this very question in his first stab at another fictional genre, the pre-apocalyptic mystery.

Seems a 6.5-kilometre-wide asteroid is hurtling toward with Earth. The planet's population is in hysteria. The economy is in shambles. There's been an astronomical increase in drug use.

Laws are being rewritten and former law-abiding citizens are getting jailed with life sentences. Others are quitting their jobs and fulfilling their bucket lists.

But in some places like Concord, N.H. (now known as a "hanger town"), suicide rates are at an all-time high.

Enter newly promoted by-the-book Det. Hank Palace.

Palace is called to the washroom of a McDonald's where it looks like actuary Peter Zell has hung himself -- but this one doesn't feel right to Palace. This one doesn't feel like a suicide. He doesn't have much to go on but he can feel it in his gut. This one feels like a homicide and he's the only one out of his fellow colleagues who cares to find out the truth.

We follow Palace as he investigates and digs deeper into the apparently mysterious death. The story's strength isn't so much driven by the plot (which to some will be unfortunately predictable) but by all the background details Winters has included in envisioning what a doomed world would be like.

Along the way we are introduced to a secondary cast of characters (but none who'd win best supporting actor or actress).

This is because we're given very little depth from these characters. With the world coming to an end, it's surprising that Winters wasn't able to pull a little more emotion pulled out of them.

With the exception of Hank, the most engaging character is his troubled little sister, Nico. Involved with an underground gang of renegades, she believes the government has more knowledge regarding the apocalypse than they're sharing.

The rogue group has made it their mission to blow the whistle on the whole operation, that, or be saved. We never find out. It's a subplot that is left unresolved but hints at being carried over into the next instalment.

The first in an apparent trilogy, the novel doesn't leave the reader anxiously awaiting the sequel as others would (as you're given closure and no major hook leading into the sequel).

Rather, it feels like an introduction to our protagonist.

It does ask us the hard question, though: How would you live out your last days on Earth? Therein lies the draw and what makes the concept compelling.

 

Adam Petrash is a Winnipeg writer and power engineer by trade.

 

The Last Policeman

By Ben H. Winters

Quirk Books, 288 pages, $15

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 J8

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